This is a guest entry by recent Shape Note Singing participant, local writer, and Charlottesville WTJU radio host, Julia Kudravetz.
Last Monday, I showed up to the Haven for shape-note singing with the Charlottesville Sacred Harp Singers. We gathered on the stage in sections arranged by part: trebles, altos, tenors, and basses, and in the center stood our leader, who sang out our first notes and kept tempo throughout with hand-movements that seemed to both testify and keep time.
Certainly I did not have a great idea what was going on at first. I read the music as best I could, and followed along with the loudest treble. Each song was sung once in all four parts, and then on to the next. Everyone sang at full-volume, directing the voices to the center of the stage, where they mixed and rose up into the vaulted rafters. After a few songs, I could begin to anticipate the harmonies, and feel the emotional rise that comes with focused, full-volume choral singing.
The song that stuck with me most is probably Idumea, an eerie, minor piece that asks directly to God--what will become of me? The lyrics feel straight from another time in American religion and also entirely contemporary. I looked Idumea up later, and found that it was recently included on the soundtrack to Cold Mountain, as well as being a standard since the 19th century.
A lot of the songs in Shape-Note singing are standards, and the regular singers know all the songs in the book. (The book being about 250 songs collected as The Sacred Harp). Group members call out a song they’d like to sing and we sang it. Easy as that. This group of singers seemed comfortable as new leaders came into the center of the circle to try conducting a song, or just to hear the harmonies mix at that perfect spot in between the sections.
I’m looking forward to the next sing; they’re usually held every 4th Saturday of the month at the Charlottesville Friends Meetinghouse. More information is here.
And listen to local radio producer Kelley Libby’s podcast on shape-note singing here.